"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."
People say to me, "You're a flight attendant? I don't know how you do it."
"I was afraid to fly before, but now," they say.
Usually I don't answer. Sometimes I tell them, "Once I'm on the plane, I'm okay."
But driving to the airport, parking my car, riding the shuttle to the terminal, waiting for the time to walk down through the crowd of people and then waiting for security, wondering what they will take away from me this week that they let go last week-all of that, and the whole day before of packing, the night of not sleeping, that's when I could say to them, "I don't know how I do it either."
As my planea Southwest Airlines Boeing 737lifted up out of Man-chester, New Hampshire, on September 11th, 2001, the first plane slammed into the first tower. By the time we were in the sky space above New York, the second attack had already happened. The pilot called us on the interphone. "One at a time. Now," he said.
When I went into the cockpit, the captain's first words were, "This is no bullshit. Two planes just flew into the World Trade Center. We're flying right over it."
"One's a 737, may have been one of ours. Nothing for sure."
"This is an attack," the captain says. "Don't tell the passengers. We don't know who is on this plane but everyone is a suspect. Be careful."
I left the cockpit and went to the back of the plane. I stopped to look out the small round window, aircraft right, back galley door. I moved the red door strap that is used to alert provisioners and others that the door is armed, the emergency slide is set to blow. I could have drawn a line, a straight line, from the towers to my chest. I stared transfixed at the picture now common: the building gashed in shreds and smoke in two lines like weary fingers winding down the coastline.
In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien often writes about Vietnam War vets who can't let goincluding the book's narrator. "I should forget it," this persona writes, "but the thing about remembering is that you don't forget." For O'Brien's narrator, "telling stories seemed a natural, inevitable process, like clearing the throat. Partly catharsis, partly communication, it was a way of grabbing people by the shirt and explaining exactly what had happened to me."
This compulsion to explain is shared by most witnesses and survivors found in literature. Some, such as the grief-stricken old cabby in Chekhov's short story "Heartache," are compelled to speak but unable to find a willing ear. Iona wants nothing more than to tell the story of his son's death, yet he is denied this mercy three different times until, overcome by the "shining eyes" of his mare, he ends up telling his horse everything. Iona's grief is described as a grief that "would flood the whole world," yet the world isn't listening. The world is asking Iona to pay attention to the road, to drive faster, to let it get some sleep.
In Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno," Cereno is one of six Spanish sailors to survive the murderous uprising of his ship's living cargo of slaves. Cereno's eventual rescuer is confused at the newly freed man's dark mood, his inability to rejoice at his return to civilization. "You are saved," he says, "what has cast such shadow upon you?" He admonishes Cereno to look at the sky and see that the sun, even the sea, has "forgotten it all."
"Because they have no memory," Cereno says in response, "...because they are not human."
Through his own enslavement, Benito understands the desperation of the slaves and recognizes what happens within the soul of the victim. Unlike his contemporaries, Benito tangibly grasps the full horror. Benito Cereno is like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner come back from the deep depths of human suffering and frailtywrecked, stunned, and beholden as both witness and victim. But whereas the Ancient Mariner waylays wedding guests with his dark tale, Benito Cereno retreats into a monastery and dies a scant three months after his rescue. For him, there is no return.
"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is perhaps the most widely recognized story of return and the compulsion to speak about it. In this tale, the Ancient Mariner carelessly shoots an albatross that has brought his ship much luck. The wind and the water cease to move, and the boat is stuck "as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean." The bird is hung around the Mariner's neck, and every last member of his crew falls dead "with heavy thump." The Mariner is left alive but loses even his ability to pray. Spirits reinhabit the bodies of his crew long enough to guide the ship back home, where the Mariner is "forced" to begin his tale. This telling, the Mariner says, "left me free," but he is compelled, again and again, to speak of his experience:
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.
"The bright-eyed Mariner" seems almost immortal as he tells the wedding guest his tale of death and life, complete with prayers and praises "for the dear God who loveth us." Does this voice, this compulsion to tell the "ghastly tale," allow the Mariner his life? If Benito Cereno suffered the same compulsionto tell the tale until he told it right, in all its facets, with all its thick webbing of emotion and paradox would this give him enough to live on, in his return? How much of our return depends on the availability of our own voice? The ability to make both the memory and the human endure in the "normal life" of return?
The poet T. S. Eliot wrote: "We had the experience but missed the meaning."
"How is a throat slit with a plastic knife?" a pilot asks me. "Do you know how long it would take someone, to cut flesh with plastic?"
That day, in the cockpit, right as it was happening, the captain said to me, "The only thing I can figure is they got one of the girls. That's the only way they could get me out of here; I think I'd have gone out if they killed one of my girls."
We have all heard. We have listened, gasped, and formed ourselves new lives.
A flight attendant called from the first plane, and when asked, Can you tell us, what do you see? she answered, "I see buildings, water, and oh my God, oh my God."
And then, nothing.
Now the cockpit doors are fortified: electric keypads and double locks. Pilots tell me, "No one's getting in." But my neck, this body, is out here on its own. A few weeks later, over and over I hear itpilots saying to me, "If anything happens, you're on your own."
The Vietnam War is famous for its veterans who can't return to normal. They're on street corners, and in jail cells, VA hospitals, insane asylums. In Dispatches, Michael Herr writes about what he saw Vietnam do to others and to himself: "Back in the World now, a lot of us aren't making it. The story got old or we got old." The young soldiers were often impressed that Herr, a reporter, was there when he didn't have to be. Herr writes: "Always, they would ask you with an emotion whose intensity would shock you to please tell it, because they really did have the feeling that it wasn't being told for them, that they were going through all of this and that somehow no one back in the World knew about it."
"The war was over and there was no place to go" is the opening line of Tim O'Brien's short story "Speaking of Courage." It's a story about Norman Bowker, a veteran who's made it back to normal, though he can't find a way to function there. Instead he drives around the town lake in his father's car, telling his war story to an imagined audience that includes (at times) his father, an old girlfriend, the Kiwanis club, and a group of workmen. Norman Bowker, O'Brien tells us in a subsequent addition to the story (called "Notes"), later killed himself with a jumprope in a locker room. Bowker came back from the warback to his small town, to the daily routines of life without war. But there was nowhere to go; the road ran out.
Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is an oft-used parallel to the horrors of Vietnam. Conrad explores not only Marlow's journey into the heart of the Central African jungle, but also his return: "I found myself back in the... city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams...I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew..."
They could not possibly know the things I knew: Marlow becomes another Ancient Mariner, forced to tell the story, to wander the world with the curse of what he's seen and where he's been. Speaking slowly, in a sort of trance, his arms resting at his sides like Buddha in meditation, Marlow states: "I have a voice, too, for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced."
Much of literature attempts to explore the fear that comes after catas-trophe, the ache and loss that come with survival, with the whole of living.
Mine is the speech that cannot be silenced.
I knew my husband was in Washington, D.C., but I didn't know where he was or how and I wanted, suddenly, to be already pregnant. That was my second thought, on the plane, as I watched. The first came from a poem by Rilke: I heard the words "You must change your life."
But there were drinks to be served. Trash to be collected. My hands tried to steady the four-ounce cup of soda, the loudness of the white plastic trash bag. The passengers knew nothing. No one on the plane asked, "What are we flying over?"
I went back to the cockpit with questions. While I'd been serving drinks, the Pentagon had happened, but not Pennsylvania. Not yet. The captain put a hand up to stop my voice and listened to Air Traffic Control through his headset. He turned a few buttons, hit a switch. "Here," he said. "How's this?"
Voices filtered in, Air Traffic Control. They were calling out flight numbers, names. They said: There are still eight planesno, six. Four. Five planes unaccounted for. All planes not on the ground in fifteen minutes will be shot down.
But they didn't let us land in Baltimorehome. They sent us down to Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina, and I played their words over in my head the whole time until landing.
The captain asked us to secure the cabin for arrival. I formed sentences as I took passengers' trash. I asked them to bring their seats forward, put up their tray tables.
"I didn't know there was a stop in between."
"But we're going to Disney World," whined a small child.
"Is something wrong with the plane?"
"Will there be a refund?"
"There's nothing wrong with our plane," I said. "I'm not at liberty to tell you right now," I said. Finally, I perfected a response: "Right now every plane in America is being grounded. You'll understand once we land."
Some flight attendants told me they didn't know anything until they landed, walked through the crowds, and saw a television.
We taxied to a stop on the runway. I looked out the window and saw hundreds of planes lined up in front of gates, backed onto the runway, parked in colorful lines stretching silver, tan, white, grey, blue. There were planes from almost every major United States carrier: all down, grounded indefinitely.
In a van full of stranded flight attendants and pilots, the radio was on with the first numbers. They'd added up the things known for certain, such as the number of passengers on the planes, the number of crew. I repeated the number for myselfsomething like 184, 167and choked on it like dry bread. Someone said, "Have you found your husband yet? Isn't he in D.C.? Have you talked to him?"
"I don't have a cell phone," I said.
Seven cell phones, handed to me from all directions, dropped in my lap.
I woke them up in Idaho. Unable to reach my husband or my parents, I phoned an aunt who asked me why I was calling. I told her to turn on the news. Before hanging up I said, "Just tell everyone I'm okay." About my husband I said, "I don't know. I don't know yet."
When my husband finally answered the phone at our house, I said you're home to his hello and then we didn't speak for a moment. Finally he said that people had called us from everywhere. There were already eight messages when he got home. "Number Five was you," he said.
The hotel doubled up our rooms, but I was glad for company. Jen and I sat on our beds in the hotel room and stared at the TV, screaming out in unison when the towers fell. It had already happened. This was a rerun for many, but our first time to see or even realize that a building could shudder like that, could shimmer light and break apart like a man falling to his knees without bending at the waist.
We worked the phone numbers that defined our lives. The phone rang when we weren't calling out. We talked at the same timeJen on her cell phone-and we stole each other's phrases, each other's memories. Someone told us about the firefighters, how they were climbing up the stairs when the buildings fell.
We fell asleep in uniform. We slept for six hours and woke, the news still going, the same images playing out.
José Saramago's Blindness is an exploration of extreme circumstance and humanity's ability (and inability) to survive it. An epidemic of "white" blindness spreads rapidly through all levels of a fictive society, sparing only one woman described as "the doctor's wife." Within a matter of months, "time is coming to an end, putrescence is spreading, diseases find the doors open, water is running out, food has become poison."
Because her vision remains unimpaired throughout the novel, the doctor's wife becomes the beacon of the story. She is able to observe what those around her are only surviving. The reader is tied irrevocably to this woman. "You do not know," she tells her blind companions. "You cannot know, what it means to have eyes in a world in which everyone else is blind... you can feel it, I both feel and see it."
When a blind man who is also a writer discovers that she has kept her sight, he says, "That means that you saw everything that has happened."
"I saw what I saw, I had no option," she answers.
The writer says it must have been "horrible." The exchange that follows touches on the incapacity of words to describe what has been endured: "You are a writer, you have...an obligation to know words, therefore you know adjectives are no use to us...there is no need for us to say it was horrible, Do you mean that we have more words than we need, I mean that we have too few feelings, Or that we have them but have ceased to use the words they express, And so we lose them..."
The doctor's wife is not just a witness; she is the only witness. The sights and circumstances of the last months are burned into her being. The question she asks her husband, at the novel's conclusion, is not why did you go blind but why did we go blind. She recognizes that she has become entirely different from who she was. She has suffered an orgy of rape, she has killed with her own hands, bathed the corpse of a dead woman, washed excrement from the body of her husband-even watched as her blind husband made love to another woman. She is more than capable of survival.
For her companions, the return of sight is a liberation. But the doctor's wife has no such joy to cling to. As sight returns to the city, she weeps "because...at that moment her feeling of loneliness was so intense, so unbearable."
Soon after her husband recovers his sight, he says, "When life gets back to normal, and everything is working again...it is a matter of weeks." Though the blindness has happened to a whole society, it is as though it hasn't happened at all.
It is September 14th, and the plane is empty except for six flight attendants and five pilots. We are going home. They call this a ferry flight. We are in uniform, but there are no passengers. This means anything goes. A pilot pretends to do the safety announcement. Another pilot pretends to do a drink service, tossing us cans of coke and water. The pilots take off with the cockpit door open. A flight attendant holds onto the front seats, standing on a safety information card. The plane tips upward on take-off and he slides, laughing, to the back of the plane. We do not wear our seatbelts. We spread out around the empty plane. I stare out the window as we climb up through clouds and then fly in over the Chesapeake Bay. I am looking for my house. Sometimes, when the leaves are gone, I can see it from the plane.
We are all quiet as we come in to land.
W. G. Sebald's novel Austerlitz is based on one man's need to tell his story. Jacques Austerlitz is a survivor of another kind: one without knowledge of what he has surviveda secondary witness to the Holocaust and its displacement, a lost man trying to become found. He eventually discovers his Jewish heritage, the fact of his journey as a four-year-old out of Holland to London (where he was adopted before his parents' death and not told of his origins). For much of his life, he has had no knowledge of what he was returning from.
For Austerlitz, return is not so much what he can see but what he can remember. As a child he'd worried for the squirrels in winter, asking how the squirrels knew where to find "their hoard" if the "entire forest floor" was covered in snow. "How indeed do the squirrels know," the adult Austerlitz asks the narrator, "what do we know ourselves, how do we remember, and what is it we find in the end?"
Nearing the conclusion of this novel, Sebald's narrator tells of a man standing at the edge of an unfenced, abandoned mine pit that falls a "thousand feet" deep: "It was truly terrifying to see such emptiness open up a foot away from firm ground, to realize there was no transition, only this dividing line, with ordinary life on one side and its unimaginable opposite on the other." This image offers a tangible, visceral version of an idea that was expressed as follows in Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting: "It takes so little, so infinitely little, for a person to cross the border beyond which everything loses meaning: love, convictions, faith, history. Human life-and herein lies its secret-takes place in the immediate proximity of that border, even in direct contact with it; it is not miles away, but a fraction of an inch."
Austerlitz himself lives within this "fraction of an inch." The extreme circumstance of his forgotten history and displaced existence allow Austerlitz to exist astride this border between collapse and recovery, the edge of the pit and the pit itself.
Three weeks after 9-11, I have fingerprints done. A violation of my civil liberties. But you want to work, right? You need the job, right? And so fuck the libertieshere are my hands.
I strip at security checkpoints while passengers file past me, smirking and looking at me suspiciously. "Take your shoes off, please. Open your bag, pleasewhat is this?"
A nail file. I forgot. Sorry.
"You won't get it back. Arms upI'm going to feel around your breasts. Undo your belt, please. Feet up. Turn around. Take your hair down, please."
All I need is music.
Don't worry, folks, I'll be back tomorrow for another show.
People say to me, "Whatever it takes." I tell them, It's going to take everything. And still I see a woman in row four, cutting an apple. With a four-inch knife.
In March 2002, the flight attendant I am working with tells me she's ready. She may be small, she says, but she's mean. She outlines her plans for fending off terrorists. She says, "I kind of hope something happens, you know?"
She wears an American flag pin on the lapel of her blazer. She sits on the jump seat, waiting for her life to change.
Months later, a girl, a passenger on one of my flights, was sleeping, her legs and arms curled up against her chest. She was probably twelve or maybe thirteen; she looked like any other girl with her family coming back from Florida in July, except that her legs and arms were covered with slashesraised pink and purple lines on her skin, like a prisoner's record of time but more erratic, like a child's drawing of grass in a picture. The cuts were still fairly new along her arms, more faint along her legs. This is grief, I thought.
And who is more truthful? She, who scars herself with visible sadness, or me, who did not quit, who is still walking and talking as though the world didn't change for me all those months ago? Playing things down, keeping the lid on. The girl, I think, has it right somehow. She wears it, her tears scarred into flesh. The colossal made personal. The personal made colossal.
I don't know anything.
I'm just learning how to see and to hear.
I want to find a way to say and believe: live,
don't be afraid until you have to be.
I heard Ed Ochester read his poem "Cooking in Key West" nine months after September 11th. The poem is about a family that buries their homosexual son in an unmarked grave. The stark, humbled grief of the last stanza forced me into a gasp of recognition. This was it. This was what I felt, had been feeling ever since standing in the back galley of that airplane, aligned perfectly with the New York City skyline, still complete. The towers were standing but burning, thick black smoke and flames pouring out of the ripped edges.
Saramago writes, "The only miracle we can perform is to go on living...to preserve the fragility of life from day to day, as if it were blind and did not know where to go, and perhaps it is like that, perhaps it really does not know, it places itself in our hands, after giving us intelligence, and this is what we have made of it."
What we have made of it cannot be as important as what we can make of it, will make of it, once we've figured out how to give words back their meanings. As absolutely as we need the ordinary tasks of livingthe post office, the grocery store, food and sleepwe need just as much the extraordinary: to destroy complacency and ignorance, to give us the chance to make something new. Or maybe just to remind us that nothing is ever ordinary.
Whatever form return takesbe it madness or visionthe writer's challenge entails not forgetting the complexities of both the shattering experience and the irrevocable change.
"This is your real destination," Eliot writes in "The Dry Salvages." "Not fare well, But fare forward."
That day, on the airplane, Rilke guided me: "You must change your life." But now when I remember that day, I hear Ed's voice saying, "I don't know anything. I'm just learning how to see and to hear." This, I now see, is the beginning of my return.
Rebecca Brock, a recent graduate of the Bennington College Writing Seminars, still works as a flight attendant. This is her first publication.